By Jeremy Essig
By Jason Robinson
By Hans Morgenstern
By Joseph Hess
By Peter Gilstrap
By Julia Burch
By Jeremy Essig
By Nathan Smith
The operation rid her body of cancer, but a hellish cycle of preventive chemotherapy came next. Every Tuesday she made the snaking 30-minute drive to Cooperstown, New York, to receive chemo and steroids. By the time she recuperated from the radiation on Monday, it was time to begin the process once more.
With a significant portion of her pancreas removed, Jones' body no longer produces enough enzymes to properly digest food on her own. She'll have to supplement with enzyme pills with every meal for the rest of her life — a lesson she learned when she unknowingly took too small a dose that had her freshly sewn-together organs in an agonizing knot and required a trip to the ER.
"I was in such pain that I couldn't stand up. I threw up cups and cups of this stuff that was yellow and green. I was about to die," she says, wincing at the memory.
A regimen of prescribed drugs brought their own unpleasant side effects. Fed up with all the pills for pain, nausea and heartburn, Jones inquired about medical marijuana. "I kept reading all this stuff about it," she says. She discovered that marijuana alleviated the discomfort and bought herself a pocket vaporizer pen, a truth she doesn't mind divulging, though she declines to go into detail. "I hate taking pills, because those things are dangerous," she says. "I stopped taking four different medications when I started using [marijuana]."
While recuperating in upstate New York she modified her lifestyle to include a healthy diet, regularly sucking down "green drinks" that Holken made for her. "First I was choking it down, but now I'm like, 'Where's my juice?'" says Jones.
The months of forced therapy left her with too much time to fill, but it wasn't all bad. Jones began frequenting the opera. "I love how they sing and howl! You don't know what they're singing, and they don't speak the language. How do they do that? I keep telling people I've been culturized up here."
In early November, Jones steeled herself for a trip to a ramshackle and boarded-up billiard hall in Queens to shoot a video for her band's new single, "Stranger to My Happiness." The song is a baritone-sax-filled romp that sees Jones purring along about stealing hearts and then stealing away. The set for the video resembles the remnants of a wedding reception with half-eaten slices of cake and empty beer bottles strewn everywhere. Wearing a sparkly dress, Jones dances alongside the Dapettes, backup singers Saundra Williams and Starr Duncan. On this day the fragile convalescent from Sharon Springs is nowhere in sight — only a confidence-filled woman who wants nothing more than to get back to work.
The band has been working through the same song for five hours, and whenever they take a break from shooting, the musicians jam. It's as if they can't resist, after all this time. When they finally do stop playing, it's because they've dissolved into laughter after Roth grabs Duncan for an impromptu slow dance.
When Jones isn't needed for a few shots, she wraps herself in a coat and sinks onto a canvas director's chair. Despite the chill in the unheated building, she has been grinning nonstop all day. Then Jones studies the palms of both hands and furls her brow. "Would you look at this?" she exclaims.
A side effect of the chemotherapy drugs has caused her hands to become parched and rough. She digs in her purse for a small jar of organic hand cream. She places a dollop on her left palm while reminiscing about performing "Sweet Jane" with the late Lou Reed.
When they call her back to the set, Jones takes a deep breath and throws off her coat like a prizefighter dropping a robe before a bout.
That painful night in Idaho last April was part of a tour designed to prime fans for the group's new album, Give the People What They Want. A single, "Retreat," had just premiered on National Public Radio. The promotional machine had just begun to churn before the cancer diagnosis last June ground it to a halt. Finally, six months later, a defiant Jones announced the prognosis she, the Dap-Kings and her many fans had been waiting to hear:
"I just got the best news in my entire life!" Jones posted on Facebook January 24. "I AM CANCER FREE!!! The doctor looked at my scan and said that everything looked normal and healthy. It's been a tough road, but this is the moment I have been praying for. I cannot thank you all enough for your positive energy and prayers, I truly could not have done this without your love!"
Two weeks later — on February 6 — Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings played to a packed house at New York's Beacon Theatre. It was the band's first concert in nearly a year. Jones, still bald from chemotherapy, burst onto the stage and quickly kicked off her shoes before belting out song after song for two straight hours. The highlight of the show, though, came when Jones dragged a fan and fellow cancer survivor onstage for a dance-off.
"There are a lot of people that are nervous about us playing again, but I'm not one of them," says bandmate Roth. "Sharon gets onstage and everything gets real."